A Case Study on Putting Parents at the Center of Early Childhood Solutions

The Challenge

1 in 3 children in the US is not ready for kindergarten

An array of complex issues contributes to this challenge, but we know that any solution starts with parents — children’s first and best teachers. When children have high-quality support to learn and grow early on in their lives, they are much more likely to succeed later in life.

In early 2017, the Early Learning Lab, with major support from the Overdeck Family Foundation, sought out ways to work more closely with parents to ensure that they have the best tools and strategies to help their children learn early. To do so, we identified three barriers that get in the way of better supporting young children and their families.

There is often a disconnect between family-serving organizations and parents, so programs don’t engage parents effectively to design services for their needs.

Organizations and parents typically don’t have the tools they need to work together to innovate and improve offerings for children.

Too often, family-serving organizations in a community compete for scarce funding and don’t collaborate to enhance their programs and services.

The Impact Framework

Knowing that solutions created with parents instead of for parents are much more likely to meet their needs, we launched the Parent Innovation Institute. We designed this year-long place-based initiative to bring organizations and the families they serve together, and test how co-creation and rapid-cycle learning could generate the following impacts:

Improve programs and services to better meet parents’ and families’ needs

Develop parent and staff leadership and innovation capacity

Strengthen connections between parent serving organizations in a community

“The Parent Innovation Institute gave me the confidence to express what I needed, what I wanted, and what I could achieve.”

Parent Participant

The Participants

Four participating organizations — César E. Chávez Branch of the Oakland Public Library, La Clínica de La Raza, East Bay Agency for Children, and The Unity Council — assembled teams of two staff members and two parents. These organizations are representative of preschool, library, health, and family resource programs found in most communities.

Oakland Public Library
La Clínica
East Bay Agency for Children
The Unity Council

“Too often we leave out the parents’ voices, and giving them that opportunity to voice what their desires are is so important.”

Staff Participant

The Place

Fruitvale is a vibrant multicultural neighborhood in Oakland, California that blends traditions from all around the world. It’s also a community that faces challenges with immigration, economic inequality, and gentrification. Near the heart of the neighborhood, the four participating organizations are all within walking distance of each other and a variety of other programs and services for local families.

50,000 residents
15,000 households
High concentration of families with children
Culturally and linguistically diverse
Predominantly Latino residents
Large immigrant population
Many low-income families

The Approach

The initiative allowed us to learn how co-creation and rapid-cycle learning might develop leadership and innovation capacity, improve services, and strengthen the local early childhood ecosystem. Our approach drew from and built upon the following frameworks.

Continuous improvement: Rapid-cycle learning techniques to continuously improve services and offerings
Human-centered design: Co-creating with parents to put their needs at the center of solutions
Community organizing: Develop leaders and cultivate relationships among them to make positive change

“It was truly a unique experience for me. It made me believe in my capabilities.”

Parent Participant

Key Milestones


organizations were selected from a pool of 12 applicants


kickoff “meet and greet”


two-day workshops


one-on-one coaching sessions with each team


community building events


end-of-program celebration

The Process

Participants — parents and staff alike — worked collaboratively through the five-step innovation cycle below to co-create new solutions for young children and families.

Click on a team below to see their innovation journey

“When I first started, I felt like a regular person. Now, I feel like a superwoman.”

Parent Participant

The Results

1. Improved Programs and Services

La Clínica

La Clínica aimed to address chronic disease and poor nutrition in children, and soon discovered a missing link between the mental health issues of mothers and the food they made for themselves and their children: depression, loneliness, and other mental health issues had a direct impact on their food choices. The team developed an integrated nutrition and mental health curriculum for the community.

The prototype was so successful that the team received additional funding to scale the curriculum regionally.

50+ community health educators took the new workshop.

12 community health educators got training to lead workshops.

Oakland Public Library

The library team discovered that many families did not know about the library and its resources. In addition, they found out that many families did not have access to subsidized or private preschool. They launched the “Play Café" prototype to welcome families to the library and provide children with a preschool prep program.

The Play Café was a hit with children and caregivers and is now a regular offering.

340 children and caregivers participated in the Play Café during the six-week prototype.

East Bay Agency for Children

The team wanted to increase engagement in their programs and learned that they needed to offer more resources that benefited both parents and children. They created two prototypes: a toy lending library for children, and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for parents.

The prototypes were well-received and will continue to be offered at their resource center.

100+ families used the toy lending library.

25 parents attended the ESL classes and 80% reported increased self-confidence.

The Unity Council

The team chose to focus on increasing father engagement in their Head Start programs. Their exploration of this issue led them to discover an unexpected insight: mothers often act as “gatekeepers” — defining and sometimes even limiting fathers’ interactions with their children. With this insight in mind, the team designed a prototype for the whole family. They expanded and enhanced their “Day with Daddy” event and added a community-building experience for moms in the “Mommy’s Waiting Group.”

The prototype was popular with families and greatly exceeded attendance expectations.

4x as many fathers attended Day with Daddy events than before.

Families reported improved relationships between fathers and their children.

2. Strengthened Leadership and Innovation Capacity

Relationships between organizations and parents are more reciprocal, with staff members requesting and responding to parent feedback.

All parents and staff report change in self-perception and now identify themselves as “leaders” and “advocates” for their children and their communities.

Organization leaders report significant professional growth in participating staff, who now are leading programs and mentoring colleagues.

Organizational leaders recognize the value of co-creation and rapid-cycle learning in their work moving forward.

3. Connected Local Early Childhood Ecosystem

Parent participants reported feeling a growing trust and closer connection to institutions.

Organizations developed new relationships with one another and identified new opportunities to work together.

Participants are committed to regularly meeting with each other to continue their progress.

Organizations are better equipped to use scarce local dollars effectively by working collaboratively rather than competitively.

“We’re taking parent feedback and working together as a team on how we improve what we’re doing and provide exactly what they want.”

Staff Participant

Initiative Challenges

Like the participants, we learned along the way and course-corrected in real time as much as possible. Here are some of the challenges we encountered.

Complex socio-political issues

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Change and Commitment Capacity

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Traditional impact measurement

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Principles for
Co-Creation and Rapid-Cycle Learning

Several key ingredients were important in responding to and overcoming the challenges we encountered. We also believe there are additional elements that help make any co-creation and rapid-cycle learning approach between organizations and parents work.

Be culturally competent
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Encourage a growth mindset
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Co-create authentically
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Identify appropriate impact measurement
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Encourage creativity and build community
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Create opportunities for leadership
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Cultivate ownership and partnership
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Recognize the value of participants
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“I now have a mobilized group of parents and they'd be ready to go to bat for us.”

Staff Participant

How to apply this in your work

The institute created rich learnings for all involved, and we are proud of the positive impacts the institute and participants helped to achieve for families living in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland.

We hope the lessons learned from this initiative help others in the early childhood field successfully engage in co-creation and rapid-cycle learning to work with parents and address their children’s needs. The insights in this report can also be applied to other challenges and contexts that may look different. Some examples include:

  • Groups of parent-serving organizations in a community or across geographies coming together to solve a shared challenge or a range of challenges
  • A large parent-serving organization that wants to address organization-specific challenges by developing innovation capacity as a core element of its work
  • Groups and organizations that use the innovation cycle for shorter or “lighter touch” initiatives, including the development of parent and/or staff innovation capacity

Greater impact for parents and families means doing things differently. We believe that authentic co-creation and the use of rapid-cycle learning are important tools that can unlock innovation and bring better support to children faster.

To learn more about the Parent Innovation Institute, contact us at info@startearly.org.

Download Case Study PDF

Watch the Video

“I feel like my voice is heard. And if my voice is not heard, I make it heard because I have the skills. I have the tools.”

Parent Participant

This initiative and case study were made possible by major support from the Overdeck Family Foundation.

Overdeck Family Foundation